Frank Bidart’s new National Book Award-winning Half-Light collects all of his poems from 1965 to 2016. In what follows, I take for granted that the book comprises an important and outstandingly original poetic achievement. Instead of attempting a review of this huge book, I’m going to obsess about one of the most recent poems in it.
“Creature coterminous with thirst.” That is the last line of “Thirst” which is the title poem in the final section of Half-Light. The poem is addressed to “you” as are many of Bidart’s poems; the “you” is almost always understood to be Bidart himself, trying to observe his own thinking and feeling from a distance that might allow calm reflection; at the same time, the address to “you” often suggests an effort to say something that is true for you, and me, for all of us as human beings who desire and strive and grieve. This effort to utter fundamental inescapable truths about all human lives might not necessarily underlie all poets’ poems addressed to “you” – or at least, not so insistently and unignorably – but in Bidart this effort is out in the open.
Reader, are you a creature coterminous with thirst? The phrase is memorable, stark, unalleviated, merciless. Bidart is a master of such phrases. They show up throughout his oeuvre of nine books – often at the ends of poems, but not only there; his mind strains heroically, or someone could say fanatically, toward such uncompromising point-blank declarations about the human condition. Almost always, these declarations guarantee endless frustration for human beings: we cannot be lastingly happy; only via illusion and self-deception can we accept life on earth.
When you read a poem, questions about it float up in your mind: Is this enjoyable? Is it related to my own experience? Is it intense? Is it deft, shapely, efficient, felicitous? Am I catching on to its purpose? A question that doesn’t always rise to the top is the question that Bidart’s poetry makes un-dodgeable: Is this really true?
Frank Bidart was my great teacher, in everything about the writing of poems. I met him in 1978 when I was twenty-eight. In terms of becoming a serious poet, I was a very young twenty-eight – I had not thought hard about what it means to write seriously. Bidart taught me that the crucial thing to ask about a poem – apart from which all other “poetic” qualities turn out to be trivial – is whether the poem strives intelligently and passionately toward a deep truth. Is this really true? It was scary to be asked this about my own poems, and to be led to realize that they were evading or cleverly disguising or even denying my real feelings. But it was also thrilling – because Bidart helped me believe that a poem of mine could– through reflection and revision – dig to a place of deep truth.
Perhaps that sounds naïve. “Truth” here does not mean factual accuracy about one’s own past – though Bidart made clear that factual accuracy is far too easily dismissed or fuzzed over by some poets. Also, “truth” does not necessarily mean a statement objectively incontrovertible; something can be emotionally true for you today and then the quasi-opposite can be true for you tomorrow. (The greatness of Wallace Stevens, for example, involves this understanding.) A truth can be terribly (or comically, or absurdly) ambivalent. (Bidart has always been obsessed with the Catullus poem “Odi et amo” – “I hate and love.”) Nevertheless, to read a great – or very good – poem is to encounter an implied statement about life that feels terrifically true. As Bidart has said, Keats’ phrase “the true voice of feeling” can be undermined by any number of theorists but it will always come back to haunt anyone seriously interested in poetry. We listen for that voice.
Frank Bidart as my teacher had many helpful things to say about the shaping and diction and pace and tone of poems. But the core of what he taught me (and many others) was that no amount of dexterity or verbal vigor or breadth of reference or metaphorical oddity or righteous moral admonition can substitute for a central pursuit of truth. Without that, the other qualities are vain showmanship, light entertainment.
(Let me note in parenthesis here that Bidart’s encouragement of my own poetry crucially included the possibility that I could pursue truth through irony and humor. Bidart in social life can enjoy and deploy irony and humor in delightful startling ways; but from his poems irony and humor are sternly excluded. Yet he saw, as a great teacher does, that a student could need to try a kind of writing different from his own.)
The poem “Thirst” hits us head-on with the idea that transcendent joy, transcendent fulfillment, transcendent union with the beloved will always elude us – or, will elude us 99.9% of our time on earth. You can’t imagine a good poem that would address this theme in a more frontal and adamantly generalizing way. I’m going to focus on “Thirst” so as to articulate some thoughts about Bidart’s work. Most of what I say will not take into account Bidart’s famous long poems that involve personae. “Thirst” is not among my favorite Bidart poems (which include “Guilty of Dust,” “For Mary Ann Youngren,” “Happy Birthday,” “Advice to the Players,” “The Return,” “The Soldier Who Guards the Frontier,” “To the Dead”). But I will arrive at the claim that “Thirst” is a good poem and I want to think about why.
“Thirst” is a poem almost entirely devoid of metaphor. Even in the work of a poet who has in every book wielded abstractions with notorious boldness, the uncompromising generality of “Thirst” is astonishing. (Generality is not synonymous with abstraction, but the two qualities tend to predicate each other.) Where have we ever seen a good poet so defiantly staying at the level of gigantic generalization in a poem? I think of some of Lawrence’s short furious poems as one case. Like Lawrence, Bidart asks us to hear a voice uttering the generalizations, a voice so intensely and persuasively personal that the pleasure of hearing this voice substitutes for the pleasures of detail and metaphor.
“Thirst” consists of eighteen very short bits of prose (or unlineated verse, if that’s not an oxymoron) separated by bullet points. This way of appearing on the page would be a bold choice for some poets, though in comparison with the drastic, emphatically signifying use of white space and italics and capitalization and punctuation throughout Bidart’s work it comes across as unusually calm and modest; the tone implied by the arrangement of “Thirst” is that of a weary summation, a stock-taking after long experience. On reflection we have to notice how much this poem, abstaining from (or disdaining) all detail and metaphor (with two or three very limited exceptions), depends on the spacing and the bullets for poetic effectiveness.
Here are the first eight of the eighteen segments of “Thirst” – presented here without the separations.
The miraculous warmth that arose so implausibly from rock had, within it, thirst. Thirst made by a glimpse that is, each time, brief. As if, each time, that is all you are allowed. The way back to it never exactly the same. Once you have been there, always the promise of it. Promise made to beguile and haunt, you think, residue of an injunction that is ancient. Not only ancient, but indifferent? Half the time when you pursue it you fear that this time, out of distraction or exhaustion or repetition, this time it cannot be reached.
By typing the lines together that way, as prose paragraph, obviously I am violating the poem, in order to accentuate its radically prosaic quality. (In the opening sentence, there is a whiff of metaphor, but right away we realize that warmth means life and rock means materiality, so the sense of metaphor vanishes immediately.) Does the paragraph as paragraph offer us any of the pleasures we hunger for in poetry? One is tempted to say No; the paragraph reads like a very broad thematic paraphrase of a poem; Bidart’s poetry has frequently tempted or dared readers to say this No, especially since In the Western Night (1990). Yet ultimately I say Yes, even when read as a prose paragraph the first eight segments of “Thirst” do possess one kind of power I feel as poetic, inhering in a gravity of tone – chastened by disappointment, all-but-exhausted, yet persisting in statement. It’s a sound we’ve heard in some passages of Beckett (which we are free to call poetic if they feel poetic!). Still, reading “Thirst” we are aware that the white spaces and the bullets are being asked to do a lot to awaken in us a sense of poetic force.
Now I’ll quote the next six segments of “Thirst,” again putting them together as continuous prose; beginning with a startling and almost-comical address to the reader who has been considering what the desired “it” is in the poem.
I hope you’re guessing Orgasm, or Love, or Hunger for the Absolute, or even The Sublime – History littered with testimonies that God gives his followers a shot of God; then withdraws. The pattern, the process each time the same. There, – . . . then, not there (withdrawn). Each time you think that you can predict how to get there the next time, soon you cannot.
What is the effect of “I hope you’re guessing . . .”? It is a deft shift of tone from the vatic to the candidly chatty – for a moment Frank Bidart sounds like the sort of poet who enjoys dissolving (or plays at dissolving) the space between writer and reader so that we seem to be conversing at a bar with the poet who is drafting a poem in front of us. (I like many poems in this mode, for instance by Kenneth Koch, Tony Hoagland, Denise Duhamel, Mark Halliday; or see “The Cooked Goose” by Diane Seuss.) We can imagine such a poet saying “I hope you’re guessing X, but what I really mean is Y.” That could be a good amusing move. But Bidart is not teasing us. He really does hope we’re guessing Orgasm, or Love, or Hunger for the Absolute, or even The Sublime. And of course we are already guessing those things; anyone who has bothered to ponder “Thirst” up to this point has already considered some or all of those four meanings for “it”. Therefore I think the audible and intended effect of “I hope you’re guessing” is a wearily wistful sound, as if to say “I know that my theme is not unfamiliar, and indeed I feel that the meaning of it in my poem is monstrously inescapable and (though we may pursue different versions of it) famously omnipresent in mental life; and I don’t want to feel alone in admitting this.”
It takes nerve to hit one’s meaning directly on the head in a poem. (Yeats does it movingly in the closing lines of “A Prayer for My Daughter”; Larkin at the end of “An Arundel Tomb”.) Of course the effect can be utterly banal. But a good poet can make this move express a serious urgency in the effort to communicate. The nerve, and the urgency, are qualities of the persona (to use that hoary but sometimes useful term) evoked throughout Frank Bidart’s poetry. One feels one is listening to a person shockingly ready to speak truths, urgently and without concern for suavity.
Alice Mattison has written that in Bidart’s poems, “the person insisting on the abstraction – forced to use the abstraction as a way to try and make sense of the unbearable or the incoherent – is always discernible, either because of the anguish of his voice or because he announces his presence.” This is the crucial thing that a defender of Bidart’s style has to say. Mattison’s examples (in her essay “The Tumult in the Heart Keeps Asking Questions”) are drawn, though, entirely from Bidart’s best-known longer poems that have strong narrative or dramatic elements. A later poem as starkly un-concrete and generalized as “Thirst” magnifies the gamble in Bidart’s hope that a sense of personal presence can sufficiently be evoked by the intensity and intelligence of a voice thinking big thoughts without narrative illustrations.
Without, also, idiosyncrasy. That is, the phrasing of sentences in “Thirst” proceeds with very little idiosyncrasy – as my transgressive merging-of-segments-into-paragraphs has made more apparent. Unlike most Bidart poems, which very often contort or short-circuit ordinary syntax to evoke the surfeit of pressure on each phrase, “Thirst” contains very few lines which, quoted alone, would prompt a listener to say “That sounds like Bidart.” In this regard, though it may seem a quiet or un-strenuous coda in Half-Light, “Thirst” may be viewed as an extreme, no-farther-to-go experiment by a radically experimental poet. It is fascinating to watch for signs of how deeply he is aware of the artistic risk he runs.
In “O ruin O haunted”(from Metaphysical Dog, 2013) Bidart addresses himself, summarizing the choice around which which he has centered his life: “You lodged your faith / in Art – // which gives us // pattern, process / with the flesh // still stuck to it. // With flesh, you / told yourself, pattern // is truer, subtler, less // given to the illusion / seeing frees you from it.” This statement of commitment to “embodiment” or representation has to seem to a reader of Bidart’s poems (except for his dozen longest ones) weirdly ironic – with an irony that doesn’t seem conscious on the poet’s part – because if “flesh” is detail, color, images, characters, scenes, it is hard to imagine a poetry less fleshed out than the vast majority of Bidart’s poems.
He is, I believe (and have felt since I met him in 1978) a profoundly insightful thinker about art, as the passage just quoted suggests, and so the impression that emerges is that Bidart knows that art’s life blood is representation even while he feels compelled to drive beyond representation. In Metaphysical Dog the poem “Of His Bones Are Coral Made” ponders his lifelong hunger for stories – “stories the pattern of whose / knot direly traces the pattern of his own” – and in a note on the poem Bidart provides a bold insight (unintimidated by theorists) into the persistence of narrative in Modernism: “Narrative is the ghost scaffolding that gives spine to the great works that haunt the twentieth century.” It is amazing that the poet who sees this still has needed, in his last four books especially, to keep writing poems whose scaffolding is so ghostly, poems whose narrative or fleshly elements remain mostly ghosts hovering in the white spaces between lines, poems of Absolute Rock Bottom Generalization.
The problem with cutting down to the bone of truth is that bones are not satisfying. Or, if there is a kind of peace in having reached the rock bottom of insight, the peace is short-lived because the spirit cannot live on rock. In this version of “hunger for the absolute” the hunger turns out to be an illness – or so I’m inclined to say, as I contemplate the countless declarations of irremediable frustration in Bidart’s oeuvre.
Meanwhile, though, Bidart would say (and has said many times, for instance brilliantly in “Little O” in Watching the Spring Festival, 2008), if the bone of truth (the absolute of insight) is not sustaining, neither is conventional mimesis, the flesh of description. Is there a kind of art original enough, fresh enough, rich enough and wise enough to present an embodied sense of profound truth (soul with body) that is lastingly satisfying? We think first of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Then we think of many favorite poems (Frost, Yeats, Browning, Whitman, Herbert – or your choice). But the scary looming suspicion here is that lasting satisfaction in life can’t come from art. This suspicion is terrifying for someone like Bidart who has so determinedly centered his life in art.
The pervasive focus on erotic desire in Bidart’s books since Desire (1997) reflects that suspicion. Is there a lasting satisfaction that can come from romantic love? I’ve always wanted to say yes. If we allow satisfaction to mean something not always synonymous with happiness, if it can involve a deep feeling of transcendence and arrival and fulfillment as a lastingly real possibility in romantic love, then I do say yes. (Here I set aside love for one’s children, because it is not in Bidart’s zone of contemplated life, though I do feel there can be in it also a kind of absolute.) So my objection to the last line of “Thirst” (which I’ll return to below) arises from my sense of what is possible in love. And indeed, there are places in Bidart’s poetry where he does seem to admit that a profound and durable satisfaction (not just sexual ecstasy) can come from romantic love. “You Cannot Rest” (from Watching the Spring Festival) ends with these lines:
…………………………………………… the great
grounding events that left you so changed
you cannot conceive your face without their
happening, happened when someone
could receive. Just as she once did, he did – past
judgment of pain or cost. Could receive. Did.
I find those lines beautiful and moving. But they are darkly shaded by that poem’s title.
Returning now to “Thirst” – there are four remaining segments at the end of the poem which I have not yet quoted. In the first of these, Bidart offers, for the first and only time in the poem, a concrete example of the precious “glimpse,” the sublime “it” for which the spirit yearns. Strikingly, the example does not come from romantic/erotic experience (as we might have expected after many Bidart poems, such as the last poem in Metaphysical Dog, “For an Unwritten Opera”), but from an experience of enjoying someone else’s art, the art of a great singer. Offering this experience as the one example in “Thirst” of “ecstasy,” Bidart may be in a mood (many excellent poems are moody; after all, “emotion recollected in tranquility” describes a mood) to imagine himself as post-sexual. I suspect when I am seventy-eight I too will try (unsuccessfully) to imagine myself as post-sexual.
Here are the last four segments of “Thirst” as they appear on the page.
The singer’s voice, the fabled night the microphone captured her at the height of her powers –
You have been the locus of ecstasy.
You have been a mile above the storm, looking down at it; and, at the same time, full of almost-insight, obliterated at its center.
Creature coterminous with thirst.
The specific example of ecstatic enjoyment is notably un-specific. Who is the fabulous singer? One guess would be Maria Callas, celebrated (indirectly, through persona) in “Ellen West”. But the un-specificity seems to invite us to hear an allusion to Frank O’Hara’s famous homage to Billie Holiday, “The Day Lady Died”. If so, the allusion is suggestive, sharpening our sense of what Bidart’s poetry doesn’t attempt, since there is such a huge gap of style and content between the two Franks. For O’Hara, the memory of Holiday’s greatness arises amid a welter of extremely tangible colorful quotidian experiences – in the life of flesh – some tedious and some amusing. We may say that O’Hara contrasts Holiday’s greatness with the quotidian, but still he emphasizes that it takes place – takes place – in the midst of the partly enjoyable and interesting flow of living; Holiday sings in a certain club, with a certain pianist accompanying her. If Bidart in “Thirst” deliberately reminds us of O’Hara’s poem, it must be with full awareness that both his own sense of life and his own poetic effort are radically different from O’Hara’s. Bidart’s minimally descriptive, abstracted (“the height of her powers”) reference to a great singer asks us to believe in the intensity of his appreciation – to believe in it on what basis?
On the basis of voice; of persona. Voice – or persona in the sense of the-imagined-humanity-of-the-implied-speaker – is the column, slender but with astonishing tensile strength, on which Bidart’s poetics rests (though “rests” is a strange verb in referring to the poet of “You Cannot Rest”).
That persona, seeking to conclude such a sweepingly summarizing poem as “Thirst,” is not inclined to conclude it with an intriguing or surprising metaphor. Metaphor always offers the solace of non-obvious connection, of feeling that one’s mind is momentarily victorious over chaos or trouble. Bidart here – and so often elsewhere – abjures that solace. Instead he concludes “Thirst” with a relentlessly summarizing capstone (or tombstone) summation: “Creature coterminous with thirst.”
In those four words Bidart says something he has wanted to say again and again. (For another starkly generalizing example, less compressed, one could quote at length from “Mouth” in Metaphysical Dog.) The words come at us (as I’ve said again and again) with a fierce sound of cutting-through-to-the-truth.
Is it the truth about us? Reader, are you a creature coterminous with thirst? Am I? It’s one thing to say that we are never (or, never for more than an hour?) entirely free from desire, longing, wistfulness. Desire is almost always somewhere in the mix of what we are – as countless poets have reminded us. But the word coterminous wants to mean a more radical thing: “coterminous with” points toward “synonymous with” or “indistinguishable from”. And I balk at that. I’d say my own degree of spiritual thirst fluctuates confusingly from 5% of my being (after happy sex, for instance) to 85% (when dejected or defeated or lustful, for instance), but is not the constant essence of my being. I hope the same is true for you.
If so, when we contemplate the truth value of the last line of “Thirst,” despite its manner of totalizing summation about “you” we return to the sense of persona-truth: the statement is the truth for him, for this person evoked in our imagination by everything in Bidart’s diction and prosody. By means of that evocation, I say, “Thirst” attains a power that characterizes one kind of good poem. The Bidart persona, pervasively inhabiting Half-Light, is a unique and challenging and memorable artistic achievement. He is adamantly untempted by playful ironies that a poet (Frost, for instance) can use as a shield against the swordthrusts of misery and fear. And his intensity tends to distract us from the possibility that he, the persona, though intimately related to Frank Bidart the man, is not identical with (or coterminous with!) Frank Bidart the man. There’s a striking moment in the excellent interview by Andrew Rathmann and Danielle Allen (Chicago Review, 2001) when Bidart allows for some daylight between himself and his persona. Asked about the un-playfulness of his writing, Bidart says: “One would have to be a fool not to see the absurdity in one’s vehemences. One also has that relation to them. A grim playfulness. Not O’Hara’s playfulness.” That remark is useful, for me, as an acknowledgment of the chosen quality of the rigorous pressure toward severe generalization in Bidart’s poetry, notwithstanding his vivid feeling of having been chosen by his core theme of insoluble contradictions.
The 718-page Half-Light, too heavy to bring comfortably to the coffee shop of daily life, has an air of Last Testament, end-of-career completeness. But life resists completeness. I predict, and hope, that in four or five years Bidart will want to publish another book of poems. (And I hope that when I am eighty-three I too will care enough to try to publish another book.) My wish would be (not that Bidart has ever listened to any such advice) that in the next book he would not try for rock-bottom summations even more boiled-down and rigorously general than poems like “Thirst” – famine lies in that direction, or so I feel. Why not turn back – partly – toward the life of colors, scenes, voices, conversations, classrooms, parties, coffee, dinner, YouTube, personalities, affections? It was Bidart who showed me the beauty of Matthew Arnold’s great late poems “Geist’s Grave,” “Kaiser Dead,” and “Poor Matthias” – poems about dogs and a canary, beloved particulars in a world we don’t want to lose.